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Jon Miller

Quality Insider

Why Don’t We See More QC Circles?

A methodology due for rediscovery

Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 04:30

During the early 1990s, I recall my Japanese sensei were absolutely appalled at the dearth of industrial and production engineers hired as kaizen consultants within major U.S. manufacturers. The cycles of downsizing in aerospace and defense industries had hit the industrial engineering field hard. It would not be an overstatement to say these Japanese consultants owed their livelihood to the terrible conditions of most factories, most of which could have been fixed with a bit of will on the part of management and some dedicated industrial engineering skill. Luckily this trend has changed in the past decades, and the value of production engineering has been increasingly recognized.

The lack of strong supervision, or in some cases, any meaningful layers of supervision at all, was another thing that made my teachers tilt their heads in puzzlement. Even today, a typical leader’s span of control is far too large and ineffective, driven by direct-to-indirect labor ratios and financial models that are divorced from the reality that people who function in small teams can solve and prevent problems in ways that lower cost. Thanks to the efforts of authors, experts, and conference organizers, training within industry (TWI) is gaining popularity again, rapidly enabling the development of stronger supervision.

Suggestion systems have been making a slow, gradual comeback, thanks to the popularity of lean manufacturing and the long-term benefits of engaging the total workforce in daily improvement. Oddly, none of my sensei ever asked, “Why doesn’t this company have a suggestion system?” even when it was clear that this method of kaizen was not used to engage the people. Perhaps this was because they were hired to lead lean transformations, not coach the thought process that leads to small, daily, persistent improvement.

These are all positive and visible trends within industry, and also increasingly in the service and government fields that are adopting lean. But we are still missing many critical elements, systems, and tools that make lean enterprises functional at a high level. One of these is the QC circle.

What are QC circles? In this case, QC stands for “quality control,” but for all practical purposes, QC should generally be thought of more as kaizen or scientific problem solving originally focused on quality. Led by a mentor or coach, QC circles are small groups that work on improvement projects within their work area, typically a few hours per week, after hours. They apply the seven QC tools and the scientific method to run experiments. Results are presented to management after each project—usually lasting a few months—is completed.

QC circles were immensely popular within U.S. manufacturing once they realized that the Japanese were doing something different. Manuals were translated. Seminars were attended. QC circles were formed. Then they were abandoned. That’s a familiar cycle, but with industrial engineering, TWI, and suggestions systems making a comeback, why don’t we see more QC circles today? The content is alive and well. The humble QC storyline is the basis for the newly popularized “A3 thinking,” and what we teach Six Sigma Green Belts is essentially QC-circle fundamental tools and methods with some added acronyms such as DMAIC (for define, measure, analyze, improve, control). Some aspects of high-performance work teams are modeled on QC circles.

The lean community seems to be largely rediscovering ideas that were developed 100 years ago, abandoned, adopted, rediscovered, abandoned, and discovered yet again. Perhaps QC circles are the next thing for lean?


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.


DMAIC just an acronym?

Good article, but DMAIC brushed off as just an "acronym"???  Really?

I was part of the "total quality" movement in the early 1970's and I abandoned that line of work because it got such inconsistent results.  One company's implementation seemed to achieve some results, two others failed.  Then the "acronym" DMAIC came along and it put structure into the quality/process improvement process, and suddenly company after company was achieving success.  DMAIC is much more than just another acronym (and God knows we've had plenty of them in the quality movement!)  What DMAIC, and Six Sigma, did was nothing less than provide a recipe for success that almost anyone could follow.  And success engenders more success.  Sure, there's more to Six Sigma than DMAIC, and DMAIC isn't quite the simple recipe it first appears -- but the good news is, companies can follow DMAIC as if it were a simple recipe, have initial success, then begin to learn more of the subtleties as they grow their Six Sigma (and Lean) capabilities.


John Gunkler

In addition to Steve's

In addition to Steve's comments (which in my experience are spot on) I would add that Kaizen is not something that should take monthsKaizen improvements are quick small continual improvements.  Properly empowered small teams of line operators can affect this type of change and it is valuable in the long run.  Most of these changes effect cycle time, non value add waste and errors.  I think the author has a good point that Kaizen can and should come from the line worker.  But the name "QC circle" has a bad reputation...let's just call it what it is:  Kaizen.  

Quality Circles

I remember the Quality Circle craze of the 1980's and 90's.  Management thought they could cherry-pick the idea of Quality Circles and things would get better.  They didn't.  Anyone who has studied the works for Deming and Juran will see right away that Quality Circles cannot make much of an impact on an organization's performance unless they are part of a bigger system of improvement.  Both Deming and Juran, earlier in their careers, said that 85% of all problems and variation was under the responsibility of MANAGEMENT, not the workforce.  In later years, this number was revised to as high as 94%.  Thus, Quality Circles could only work on 6-15% of the total problem!  As a result upper management did not see the results hitting the bottom line, and Quality Circles died a slow, painful death.  The use of Quality Circles was like painting the living room window sills while the back bedroom was burning down.  One of my favorite Deming quotes:  "The role of the workforce is to work within the system.  The role of management is continuous improvement of the system with the aid of an empowered workforce."  If only this profound statement was fully understood!